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Before stardom, before The Wire and before his current gig on BBC crime drama Luther, sexy English actor Idris Elba hit a very rough patch.

"It was a wickedly tough time," the star, 41, tells Playboy magazine's November issue 20Q feature.

"I lived in a van for about three months. I'd had three or four years of unemployment, not getting acting jobs. I was watching Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes and saying, 'I can do that. I can be right there with them.' My (then) wife was about eight and a half months pregnant by the time I got the news I was going to be on The Wire. If I didn't get it, I was going to leave the U.S."

He also tried drugs. "At first I bypassed drugs. I didn't start smoking weed until later in life. I'm not gonna lie - I've tried everything, just between you, me and the people who read this magazine. I've tried it all. I played one of the biggest drug dealers in the world on TV, so you think I'd know what I was talking about."

Elba, who played crack dealer Russell "Stringer" Bell on The Wire, says he never watched himself on the HBO award-winning drama.

"I've seen a full episode at screenings but never at home. I've never watched an entire season. I've not seen any episode of season two, most of season three and none of seasons four and five. I'm supercritical of my own work. As an actor, if you're being told how wonderful you are, what do you need to strive for? I don't know if I'm good just because some critic says I am in the press."

He stars as Nelson Mandela in upcoming biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and says there were challenges that came with playing the part.

"The difficult part was inventing who he was as a young man, when nobody knew him. I'm five shades darker than he is, so the audience is going to be challenged by the fact that I don't look like him. When I played him as an older man, with prosthetics, there was more of the Mandela we know, and I could hide behind the costume."

Other highlights from the interview:

On his on-screen vs. off-screen persona: "In real life I'm a shy person. As soon as the spotlight's on me, I feel awkward. Idris feels like he doesn't have much to offer. I'm great at hiding in characters. When I deejay, I'm great at standing behind the turntables. If I go to a club, I'm awkward. Should I stand there? Should I dance? You're not going to see me dance. I end up standing by the DJ."

On regularly being included on Sexiest Men lists: "When I wasn't on TV or in films, I didn't get any special attention when I went out. Some beautiful people always attract attention. I didn't until I got on television. So I'm on these lists only because I'm on TV."

On how stardom has affected his luck with women: "I'll sit in a pub and nobody will recognize me, I might see an attractive woman, but she doesn't recognize me, so I'm not getting any love. Then one person goes, 'Oh, it's you,' and suddenly they all overhear and start asking questions. ... I've been in and out of relationships, I've been married, and it's hard to keep a relationship when you're an actor."

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